EPA’s Toxics Release Data Mask Progress in Pollution Control

Published September 1, 2004

According to the latest results from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), made public on June 23, 2004, toxic releases into the U.S. environment rose by 5 percent in 2002 over the previous year.

Environmental activists are practically jubilant, claiming this as the smoking gun proving the Bush administration has rolled back environmental regulations and stopped enforcing the few that remain. “The public is being exposed to far more toxic air pollution than the EPA acknowledges for the record,” said Kelly Haragan, counsel for the Environmental Integrity Project. “It’s time that the EPA and the states deal with the problem of inaccurate and flawed reporting of toxic releases.”

“The growth in emissions is too big to be explained away by pointing at a smelter here or a factory there,” said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. “This is an across-the-board increase in pollution.”

Despite the uproar, reports of the death of U.S. environmental regulation are premature. The apparent increase in toxic releases resulted from emissions reported by a single copper smelter. The facility shut down in 2002, and the dismantling of the plant created “waste” that was required to be reported in the TRI. Excluding that one facility, toxic releases actually declined by 3 percent in 2002.

Toxic releases increased by about 10 percent between 1996 and 1997, on President Clinton’s watch. But like the purported uptick in 2002, that factoid has little import for public health. TRI is actually a poor data source from which to make inferences about the amount of chemicals entering the environment, emission trends over time, or the risks posed to the public. Other, more comprehensive data, show emissions have been declining and suggest these declines will continue.

TRI Data of Questionable Value

Here’s why the TRI doesn’t tell us what we need to know:

First, the term “toxic release” is misleading. Two-thirds of the toxic releases in the TRI are not actually released at all; instead, they represent solid or liquid waste that is either disposed of on-site or by a waste processor, recycled, or burned to produce energy. Hence, the reported 10 percent increase in 1997 becomes a 10 percent decrease when only emissions to air and to surface waters–a more relevant measure of pollution put into the general environment–are counted. By that more appropriate measure, toxic releases in the United States fell by 1 percent in 2002, even including the copper smelter.

Second, most chemical releases are not even reported in the TRI. Motor vehicles are not included, nor are businesses that use less than 10,000 pounds of a given chemical. Most non-manufacturing businesses are not required to report. Some toxic chemicals are not included at all. For example, power plant emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide exceed all TRI-reported air emissions by a factor of 20, but they are not included in TRI reporting.

Third, emissions estimates are notoriously inaccurate, particularly for those that don’t come out of a well-defined exhaust pipe. Numerous research studies have revealed serious inaccuracies in EPA’s emission inventories, even for the few chemicals that have received substantial scrutiny. The problem is likely to be worse for most TRI chemicals.

Emissions have been declining in the United States for those pollution sources that have been carefully measured, including motor vehicles and power plants. In addition, during the past 10 years EPA has imposed Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards on dozens of major industries, capping their emissions at 60 to 99 percent below previous levels.

Fourth, even regarding chemicals emitted into the air or water, the TRI has nothing to do with people’s actual exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Many chemicals degrade rapidly in the environment or are quickly diluted to such low concentrations that they are far below a level that could conceivably cause harm.

For example, most people probably know hydrochloric acid (HCl) can cause serious injury. But as toxicologists say, “the dose makes the poison.” HCl emissions in the United States are so diluted in the environment as to be inconsequential: The very highest ambient levels are 80 percent below EPA’s “reference concentration,” a safety level set more than 99 percent below the level expected to have deleterious effects, even for chronic exposure. Typical HCl levels range from zero to a small fraction of peak levels allowed by the EPA.

Similarly, although U.S. power plants emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, levels of these chemicals in the environment are far below EPA’s safety limits and continue to decline. As noted earlier, EPA does not include these pollutants in its TRI totals, which skews the numbers even further in the wrong direction.

Fifth, although the TRI generates huge, scary numbers about the amount of chemicals released each year, the most common chemicals that make up the overall number often pose the least risk. For example, the 600 million pounds of HCl or the 146 million pounds of methanol emitted into the air in 2002 are harmless in the amounts present in the environment. These two chemicals alone account for 46 percent of all TRI air emissions. What is important is not the total amount of emissions, but the amount and toxicity of the chemicals to which people are actually exposed.

As a result of all these factors, ambient pollution levels are a far more reliable gauge of both pollution trends and potential chemical exposure. EPA and state regulators monitor many different pollutants at more than a thousand sites around the United States, and they have found that all types of pollution have steadily declined.

Regulations Remain, More on the Way

Despite claims by activists and media personalities that the Clean Air Act has been gutted or rolled back, traditional command-and-control air quality regulation is alive and well. The Bush administration has largely continued the policies of the Clinton administration in this realm.

For example, the Bush EPA recently implemented regulations adopted by the Clinton administration that reduce allowable power plant nitrogen oxide emissions by 60 percent and automobile emissions by 70 to 90 percent. EPA is also implementing regulations that require a 90 percent reduction in diesel truck emissions in 2007 and in off-road diesel equipment in 2010, along with requiring use of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel only.

These and other regulations will progressively eliminate almost all remaining consequential air pollution in the United States during the next 20 years or so, as the nation’s vehicle fleet turns over to cleaner models and as industrial sources continue to install pollution controls.

Despite the shortcomings of TRI and the realities of air pollution monitoring data and regulatory policy, the latest TRI data prompted the National Environment Trust (NET) to proclaim “the era of big government may be over, but the era of toxic pollution is back.” NET has it exactly backwards.

Joel Schwartz ([email protected]) is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming AEI book, Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks.

For more information …

“New Source of Confusion,” a footnoted August 2003 report on toxics release data by Joel Schwartz, is available online at http://www.techcentralstation.com/082703A.html.